Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 30, 2007

Islamic governmental support for Bush’s wars

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Islam,middle east — louisproyect @ 7:37 pm

Financial Times (London,England), March 3, 2003

Turkish vote deals blow to government

By Leyla Boulton

A Turkish newspaper cartoon may not have been far off the mark when it depicted the country’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) as the first casualty of the US’s undeclared war on Iraq.

Parliament’s vote on Saturday against the stationing of 62,000 US troops for the opening of a second front against Turkey’s neighbour was hailed by some in the country as a triumph for peace and democracy. The vote was no doubt a reflection of the popular will, since most Turks oppose US plans to overthrow Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi leader, militarily.

The government had good reason, however, to argue that it was in the national interest to back the US if war was inevitable. It stood to gain massive US financial compensation and a shorter war, as well as a say in the future of Iraq, particularly in northern Iraq which Turkey views as a potentially dangerous cauldron of Kurdish nationalism.

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The Boston Globe, December 31, 2001

Fighting Terror: The Washington Strategy; Turning the Tide in Afghanistan as War Unfolded, U.S. Strategy Evolved

By Michael Kranish

Haron Amin, the Washington representative of the Northern Alliance, was a deeply frustrated man in the summer of 2001. Here he was, offering his alliance’s help in overthrowing the Taliban government of Afghanistan and tracking down Al Qaeda chieftain Osama bin Laden, but the Bush White House was hardly listening.

First, Amin asked for military support. The White House refused. “Then financial support, then it was political support, and then it was moral support,” Amin said. “We got none of them. Zilch. Absolutely zero.”

Then came Sept. 11. And, within days, President Bush made one of the most important decisions of the war on terrorism, throwing his lot with the ragtag Northern Alliance and pressuring Pakistan to desert its Taliban clients.

To help arm the alliance, the Bush administration made a previously unthinkable deal, intelligence sources said: It agreed to finance a Russian transfer of arms to the alliance fighters. At about the same time, the United States started getting valuable intelligence from a longtime adversary, Iran. CIA and special forces troops prepared to join the alliance ranks to mark targets with high-tech precision for “smart” munitions that would be launched by US planes.

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The Independent (London), September 22, 2001

War On Terrorism: Iran – Straw Will Visit Tehran to Forge Unlikely Alliance

By Anne Penketh And Patrick Cockburn In Dushanbe

THE FOREIGN Secretary, Jack Straw, announced yesterday that he will travel to Iran next week for the first visit to the Islamic republic by a British foreign minister in more than two decades.

Mr Straw’s visit is part of efforts led by the United States to bind together an anti-Taliban coalition in the wake of the attacks, and follows a “remarkable” telephone conversation between Tony Blair and the reformist President of Iran, Mohammad Khatami, on Thursday.

Mr Blair said the Iranian leader not only condemned terrorism and offered support over the attacks, but expressed the wish to “rebuild the relationship between our two countries as well”.

“It’s important to build alliances with every country that we can,” Mr Straw said yesterday as he prepared for his ground-breaking meeting next week. Britain – which shares the US conviction that the Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden who is sheltered by the Taliban in Afghanistan, is responsible for the attacks – strongly supports a US-led military response.

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April 28, 2007

Claude Pines, in memoriam

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 9:51 pm

Usually I write about broader social, political and cultural issues but I feel a deep need to say something about an old classmate from Bard College that I lost touch with just about 40 years ago. His name is Claude Pines and he died of leukemia on December 11, 2006. I learned about his death, just as I learned about his life-long battle with schizophrenia, through a google search. Every so often, the question pops into my head, “Whatever happened to so-and-so” and more often than not, google will provide an answer.

Claude Pines 1943-2006

After googling “Claude Pines” about 2 years ago, I was startled to learn that he had a mental breakdown about twenty years ago and had been in and out of mental hospitals from that point on. Although I could not summon the will to get in touch with him after discovering this, I found myself thinking about him a lot and even entertaining the possibility of giving him a call. I am sorry that I did not.

This is an excerpt from the article that turned up on my first google search:

People Think I’m Crazy

The mentally ill struggle with perceptions

By MARTHA PETTEYS Glens Falls POST-STAR

Editor’s Note: This is the second in an occasional series on mental illness.

Claude Pines spent his days in the mental hospital smoking cigarettes and staring at a clock, thinking about how life would be different when he got out.

How had he fallen this far?

He was a smart guy. He went to Columbia University [he transferred there after two years at Bard.] He had been a medical student at Einstein College of Medicine and even did a term in psychiatry. Now, he was one of them.

He had fallen into a different class of people. He had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression. The symptoms of his disorder could be treated with medication and therapy. The stigma of having such an illness, however, would not be as easy to get away from.

Full: http://www.namiscc.org/Experiences/2003/PeopleThinkImCrazy.htm

Claude’s illness reminded me once again of how schizophrenia can strike like lightning out of a cloudless sky. Of all the people I was friendly with at Bard, none struck me as more balanced than Claude. Although he was only 2 years older than me, he had the demeanor and self-confidence of somebody much older and wiser.

Claude had an apartment on the Lower East Side near Tompkins Square and I used to visit him on “field period”, a two month break from classes that supposedly Bard students should have used for internships, etc. The program was pretty dysfunctional by the time I arrived there in 1961. I have fond memories of bullshitting about life, women and books with Claude till late at night and then going to Leshko’s in the morning for a huge Polish-style breakfast that cost 95 cents in those days.

This week I learned that Claude had died:

GLENS FALLS — Claude Pines died Monday morning, Dec. 11, 2006, at Glens Falls Hospital, after a seven-month battle with leukemia. Born June 7, 1943, in Brooklyn, he was the second son of the late Dr. Bernard Pines and Charlotte Rachlin Pines, Esq.

Claude graduated with a B.A. from Columbia, and attended medical school at the Universite Libre in Brussels, Belgium, and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. For many years he worked in bacteriology at Montefiore Hospital, Doctor’s Hospital and University Hospital in New York City.

Following an extended period of mental illness in 1986, he moved to the Glens Falls area, where he became an advocate in the area of Mental Health. He spoke to consumers and professionals alike from the unique point of view of one whose experience was broad enough to address important issues both personally and clinically. Claude was an active participant in programs sponsored by the Warren Washington County Association for Mental Health and North Country NAMI.

He was loved for his wry humor, gentle spirit, and a wisdom born of struggle and perseverance. He enjoyed Shakespeare and James Lee Burke, pizza with his niece, Charlotte, and the prospect of fishing for yellowtail off Bimini with his brother’s friend, Fred. Claude had been a counselor at the East Side Center, a respite worker with Voices of the Heart, which he named, and most recently, a relief worker with ARC.

Full: http://www.cherrylawnschool.org/memoriam/memoriam.html

My own brother suffered from schizophrenia and he committed suicide in a mental hospital back in 1971. Since his problems were far more severe than Claude’s, I was spared the duty of looking after him. Sometimes I wonder if he took his life just so that he wouldn’t have been a burden on me or my mother.

Paul Pines

I can’t help but identify a little bit with Claude’s older brother Paul, who also went to Bard. Paul was a good friend of Ken Shapiro, the child television comedian who used to appear on the Milton Berle show and who went on to develop “The Groove Tube” with Chevy Chase. I never really knew Paul very well, but his new website gives some indication of the kind of far-reaching interests he had and what his brother meant to him:

PAUL PINES grew up in Brooklyn around the corner from Ebbet’s Field and passed the early 60’s on the Lower East Side of New York. He shipped out as a merchant seaman, spending 65-66 in Vietnam, after which he supported himself driving a taxi and tending bar until he opened his own jazz club, The Tin Palace in 1970 on the corner of 2nd Street and Bowery. A cultural watering hole for the better part of the 70’s, it hosted figures like Kurt Vonnegut, Martin Scorsese, Charles Mingus, Eddie Jefferson, Joan Mitchell (the painter) and Larry Rivers. It also provided the setting for his first novel, The Tin Angel (Wm Morrow, 1983). During this period Pines lived and traveled in Central America where he became aware of the genocidal policy targeting the Guatemalan Mayans–the basis for his second novel, Redemption (Editions Rocher, 1997). His forthcoming memoir, My Brother’s Madness, (Curbstone Press, 10/07) is based on his relationship to his brother who had a psychotic break in his late 40’s and explores the unfolding of two intertwined lives and the nature of delusion. He has recently completed a libretto based on his novel The Tin Angel, music to be composed by Daniel Asia, who is currently setting poems by Pines in a symphony commissioned by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra scheduled to premier in 2008.

Full: http://www.paulpines.com/

I am deeply sorry about Claude’s passing, but in some way feel that death was a relief from a life-time of suffering. I am not a religious person but I have to think that if the supernatural beliefs had any basis in fact that Claude would be in heaven right now. He was one of the most decent people I ever knew in my entire life.

April 26, 2007

Bill Moyers versus the lapdog media

Filed under: Iraq,media,television — louisproyect @ 2:27 pm

Last night the Public Broadcasting System aired a searing documentary on media complicity with the Bush administration leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. It marks the return of Bill Moyers’s Journal and represents the kind of groundbreaking reporting that the nonprofit network was expected to deliver when it was launched in 1969, during the height of another imperialist war.

Bill Moyers is an interesting figure. As press secretary to Lyndon Johnson, he turned against the kind of party politics that produces such wars and hooked up with PBS in 1971. Like Ramsey Clark, LBJ’s attorney general, he has been an effective voice for the left even if his ideas stop short of the anti-capitalist conclusions that are implicit in their dynamic. Along with Ralph Nader, these three elder statesmen of the liberal-left know how the system operates from inside and often have unique insights about the rot contained in its heart, as last night’s documentary demonstrates.

The show was constructed as a kind of morality tale with people like Judith Miller, the editors of the Washington Post and the NY Times, Fox TV and Tim Russert serving as villains. The good guys, who come across as much more likable and much more effective versions of Woodward and Bernstein, are Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel of Knight-Ridder press. Knight-Ridder newspapers are distinctly outside-the-beltway and serve the communities that offer up their sons and daughters as cannon fodder for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. This means that the paper must be a bit more vigilant in examining the justifications for war, as editor John Walcott explained to Moyers:

Our readers aren’t here in Washington. They aren’t up in New York. They aren’t the people who send other people’s kids to war. They’re the people who get sent to war.

And we felt an obligation to them, to explain why that might happen. We were determined to scrutinize the administration’s case for war as closely as we possibly could. And that’s what we set out to do.

Although Moyers has a very genial manner, his questions to people like Dan Rather were unsparing. He also relied on testimony from some of the more trenchant press critics on the scene today, like Michael Massing, Norman Solomon and Eric Boehlert. Moyers has been working closely with such people, including former Monthly Review editor Robert McChesney on a project called The National Conference for Media Reform. In a speech to the last conference, he said:

Both parties bowed to their will when the Republican Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That monstrous assault on democracy, with malignant consequences for journalism, was nothing but a welfare giveaway to the largest, richest, and most powerful media conglomerations in the world. Goliaths, whose handful of owners controlled, commodified, and monetized everyone and everything in sight. Call it “the plantation mentality.”

That’s what struck me as I flew into Memphis for this gathering. Even in 1968, the civil rights movement was still battling the plantation mentality, based on race, gender and power, which permeated Southern culture long before, and even after, the groundbreaking legislation of the 1960s.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to join the strike of garbage workers in 1968, the cry from every striker’s heart — “I am a man” — voiced the long-suppressed outrage of people whose rights were still being trampled by an ownership class that had arranged the world for its own benefit. The plantation mentality is a phenomenon deeply insinuated in the American experience early on, and it has permeated and corrupted our course as a nation.

Bill Moyers page at PBS (contains transcript and complete video of last night’s show)

The National Conference for Media Reform website

April 25, 2007

Signs of the times

Filed under: workers — louisproyect @ 4:12 pm

http://hr.blr.com/news.aspx?id=75799
April 23, 2007
Employment Law Attorney Is the New ‘Apprentice’

If Donald Trump has any workers’ comp woes, his new “apprentice” should be able to help him out.

In the finale of the sixth season of the NBC reality show The Apprentice, held on April 22 at the Hollywood Bowl, Trump selected 32-year old Stefani Schaeffer as his new apprentice. She is the first attorney to be selected and only the second woman.

Schaeffer attended Southwestern School of Law’s accelerated SCALE program and graduated in the top 10 percent of her law school class. Her specialty is defending employers, primarily real estate developers against workers’ compensation subrogration, discrimination, and product defect claims.

For her $250,000 salary for her year as the Apprentice, Schaeffer had the choice of overseeing a skyscraper in Atlanta or a new condo/resort complex in the Dominican Republic. She chose the Caribbean assignment.

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NY Times, April 25, 2007
OSHA Leaves Worker Safety in Hands of Industry
By STEPHEN LABATON

WASHINGTON, April 24 — Seven years ago, a Missouri doctor discovered a troubling pattern at a microwave popcorn plant in the town of Jasper. After an additive was modified to produce a more buttery taste, nine workers came down with a rare, life-threatening disease that was ravaging their lungs.

Puzzled Missouri health authorities turned to two federal agencies in Washington. Scientists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which investigates the causes of workplace health problems, moved quickly to examine patients, inspect factories and run tests. Within months, they concluded that the workers became ill after exposure to diacetyl, a food-flavoring agent.

But the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, charged with overseeing workplace safety, reacted with far less urgency. It did not step up plant inspections or mandate safety standards for businesses, even as more workers became ill.

On Tuesday, the top official at the agency told lawmakers at a Congressional hearing that it would prepare a safety bulletin and plan to inspect a few dozen of the thousands of food plants that use the additive.

That response reflects OSHA’s practices under the Bush administration, which vowed to limit new rules and roll back what it considered cumbersome regulations that imposed unnecessary costs on businesses and consumers. Across Washington, political appointees — often former officials of the industries they now oversee — have eased regulations or weakened enforcement of rules on issues like driving hours for truckers, logging in forests and corporate mergers.

Since George W. Bush became president, OSHA has issued the fewest significant standards in its history, public health experts say. It has imposed only one major safety rule. The only significant health standard it issued was ordered by a federal court.

The agency has killed dozens of existing and proposed regulations and delayed adopting others. For example, OSHA has repeatedly identified silica dust, which can cause lung cancer, and construction site noise as health hazards that warrant new safeguards for nearly three million workers, but it has yet to require them.

“The people at OSHA have no interest in running a regulatory agency,” said Dr. David Michaels, an occupational health expert at George Washington University who has written extensively about workplace safety. “If they ever knew how to issue regulations, they’ve forgotten. The concern about protecting workers has gone out the window.”

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/25/washington/25osha.html

 

April 21, 2007

Stagedoor

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 3:47 pm

Besides the subject matter (teenagers at summer camp), the 2005 documentary “Stagedoor”, now available in home video, has other things in common with “Jesus Camp”. Like the budding rightwing evangelists in “Jesus Camp”, the aspiring Broadway performers at the Stagedoor Manor are on a mission. They are fanatically devoted to what is arguably a dead art, namely the classical musical comedies of the 1920s through the 1960s. Of course, between a religious cult devoted to shame, abstinence and the worship of mammon and the U.S. military versus a cult around the songs of Rogers and Hammerstein, there is no contest. One celebrates death while the other celebrates life and love.

“Stagedoor” follows around the young actors as they rehearse shows like “Cats”, “Auntie Mame” or “Annie”. At their performance, in the final week of the summer, casting directors and agents show up to review the talent. The camp has some distinguished alumni, including Natalie Portman, the star of one of the more recent and rather unwatchable “Star Wars” epics.

In interviews, the young performers demonstrate an amazing level of self-awareness. They understand that they are not in sync with their classmates during the school year and often have to endure taunts and beatings for their oddness. When everybody else is listening to 50 Cent or Justin Timberlake, it takes a certain amount of courage to proclaim one’s loyalty to Stephen Sondheim. It is especially difficult if you are gay, as 70 percent of the boys at Stagedoor Manor are estimated to be.

On the home page of Stagedoor Manor, there’s a testimonial by actor/director Todd Graff who probably speaks for all the campers when he says: “I was born at Stagedoor Manor. The camp is like Oz. Your real life is in black-and-white, but the minute you step off the bus everything is in color.”

Maladjustment involves other elements as well. A number of the campers suffer from attention deficit disorder and the film shows them lining up in the morning to take their pills. As Taylor Rabow, one of the featured interviewees, explains, the only time he can only get outside of his ADD symptoms and feel free is when he is “in character” and on the stage. In the closing credits of the film, we discover that Taylor has been shipped off to a military school, ostensibly to be purged of his need to perform. It is also revealed that he still has high hopes to get into a high school for the performing arts.

Indeed, the film that this superb documentary will remind you of is the 1982 “Fame,” a drama based on the lives of students at the High School of the Performing Arts in New York City. By comparison, the real-life participants in “Stagedoor” are a lot less full of themselves and a lot more attractive than their fictional counterparts. As I keep discovering, documentaries are the quintessential medium for the exploration of character, a feature of the classic novels of the past. Today, novels are much more about the exploration of irony and other postmodernist tropes so necessary for marketplace success.

Stagedoor Manor is located in Loch Sheldrake, New York, which is about a 15 minute drive from the Catskill Mountain village I grew up in. The lake is celebrated as a dumping ground for victims of Murder Incorporated, the Jewish professional killers led by Louis Lepke in the 1930s and 40s. Stagedoor Manor appears to be an old hotel that underwent a conversion. Only about a dozen hotels of the perhaps 1000 that flourished in the area still survive, mostly geared to aging Jewish couples that still feel attached to the vacation spot of their youth. Like the Stagedoor Manor, There are probably about a dozen or so hotels that have been converted to other uses, mostly as Hindu ashrams or Zen retreats. They also function as drug rehabilitation centers or halfway houses for retarded adults. Although local businessmen have been trying to figure out how to revive the area for the past 40 years, the one thing that stands in the way is an inability to transcend the narrow, Jewish framework that was its key to success in an earlier age.

“Stagedoor” is a terrific little movie, made on a shoestring budget. This is only the second film by Alexandra Shiva, who is dedicated to shedding light on those who march to the tune of a different drummer. Her 2001 “Bombay Eunuch” dealt with ‘hijras’, who have to deal with castration, poverty, prostitution, HIV, murder, and a caste system.

Highly recommended.

Stagedoor Manor website

April 20, 2007

Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan Revolution, conclusion

Filed under: socialism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:42 pm

After reading and reviewing Richard Gott and Michael Lebowitz on Venezuela, it is time for me to make my own modest contribution to understanding the unfolding revolution. I do not claim to be an expert on Venezuela, but after 40 years of writing about and trying to make a socialist revolution, I do feel qualified to speak about connections between the two.

To start with, I would argue that Venezuela marks the first significant step forward for the revolutionary movement in a period that has been marked by retreat since 1990. That year, the FSLN was voted out of office in Nicaragua–a consequence no doubt of the unwillingness of the USSR to offer strong support for a budding socialist society. Within a year or two, the Soviet Union would give up on socialism altogether. This led to a sense of futility among the Sandinistas and a willingness to adapt to global capitalism. FSLN leader Victor Tirado wrote an article declaring “the end of the cycle of anti-imperialist revolutions.”

Shortly on the heels of the FSLN defeat, the ANC and the Workers Party in Brazil also decided that there was no alternative to capitalism (TINA) even though they never quite put it in so many words. Of course, within a decade both Lula and Thabo Mbeki would have no such problems saying such a thing.

After being put on the defensive for 15 years, there is finally a government that is willing to stand up to the imperialists and to press forward with radical structural reforms. Ironically, this government is a product of a social explosion that took place in 1989, just a year before the long retreat would begin. History has a way of moving in contradictory directions, as Karl Marx observed in the Eighteenth Brumaire:

But the revolution is thoroughgoing. It is still traveling through purgatory. It does its work methodically. By December 2, 1851, it had completed half of its preparatory work; now it is completing the other half. It first completed the parliamentary power in order to be able to overthrow it. Now that it has achieved this, it completes the executive power, reduces it to its purest expression, isolates it, sets it up against itself as the sole target, in order to concentrate all its forces of destruction against it. And when it has accomplished this second half of its preliminary work, Europe will leap from its seat and exult: Well burrowed, old mole! [A paraphrase from Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5: "Well said, old mole!"]

If Hugo Chavez and his comrades make no other contribution to the working class movement than to reverse the long reactionary slide, then we must tip our hats to them.

Of course, some leftists–the dreamers of the absolute–will not be happy unless communism arrived in Venezuela tomorrow. Since it is obvious that Hugo Chavez is not a Lula, his ultraleft critics have to carry out a delicate task of triangulation. They must offer some solidarity with the “process”, but remind their readers that Chavez must ultimately be swept away. In “Bolivanarchism: The Venezuela Question in Our Movement,” Nachie advises his fellow anarchists:

As for the question of Chavez himself; while even an anarchist does not have to be familiar with the rhetoric of the “lesser of two evils” to realize that he could potentially be a progressive force in the country, we also have to look no further than his reception at recent World Social Forums to see the very real dangers of a dictatorial personality cult (growth in the popularity of the “Chavista” red beret certainly doesn’t help). What interests us most is the extent to which Chavez will allow himself to become obsolete. That is, will his projects of self-management and self-reliance in specific communities and the country as a whole transcend the need for a figurehead? Will the Revolution be able to entrench itself so sufficiently in the nation’s culture and politics that it could continue without – or beyond – him? Has it already? One of the most interesting things about the aforementioned Citizen’s Reserve army is that is that in the event of another coup or Chavez’ assassination, it could serve as a vehicle through which to push the Revolution beyond the bourgeois/democratic boundaries that it has so far respected.

How generous of comrade Nachie. I am sure that Hugo Chavez will not have a troubled sleep after reading this, knowing that he is not 100 percent rotten–only 95 percent so.

The anarcho-Marxists of the State Capitalist tendency put things in pretty much the same way. In an article that appeared in the January 2007 issue of Socialist Worker, the newspaper of the British SWP, party leader Chris Harman acknowledged that “Chavez has moved to the left as he reacts to the feelings of the million or more people who have played the key role in these movements from below.” This probably represents a passing grade, a gentleman’s C, I suppose. But even if he has moved to the left, he is still incapable of going the whole hog:

But there are still limits to his radical actions.

Most of Venezuelan big business remains untouched – and Chavez insisted in a recent speech that there was still an important role for the “national bourgeoisie”.

Chavez’s moves are not going to stop the corruption and bureaucracy which affects not only the parties of the electoral coalition, but the non-elected hierarchies of the state machine.

The top ranks of the civil service remain stacked with people appointed under the corrupt pre-Chavez system. And the armed forces continue to be full of career officers who share the values of the Chavez-hating upper-middle class.

So what is the hope of the Venezuelan people? They rest on the shoulders of people like Orlando Chirinos, a Trotskyist leader of the UNT (the pro-government trade union) and Por Nuestras Luchas (“By Our Struggles”) that “is influenced by traditions of urban guerrillaism and autonomism and looks to organising the poor, the peasants and the indigenous groups.”

From Harman’s cautionary note about Chavez and the “national bourgeoisie,” one would think that the caudillo was working overtime to maintain private property. But as early as 2005, a good two years before the current deep turn of the revolution, Chavez was giving the green light to expropriations:

Venezuela’s government seized the assets of the country’s largest paper product plant Venepal yesterday, after bankruptcy was finally declared last December.

The troubled company stopped production in September, 2004 threatening to sell off the plant’s machinery to pay off creditors. Workers at the plant who had not been paid for three months, organized a national campaign to encourage the expropriation of the factory, which culminated in yesterday’s official announcement.

The nationalization of Venepal was accompanied by a US$6.7 million credit, necessary to restart production. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez signed the declaration to expropriate the factory after the National Assembly -with the support from opposition parties- declared Venepal to be of “public benefit and social interest” last Thursday – which is a legal prerequisite for expropriation.

While one might plausibly have an orientation to an Orlando Chirinos, who does at least have a working class base of support, one wonders what popped into the head of Chris Harman when he decided to promote Por Nuestras Luchas. This group, which is influenced by guerrilla warfare and autonomism, is the last thing that the Venezuelan people need on the face of it. I would go into more depth about this boneheaded recommendation, but since this group is so obscure, I could find no petard that they have hoisted themselves on to this point. It seems rather likely that they no longer exist. One would hope that if the British SWP comrades go casting about for groups whose reputations they seek to boost, they would be a bit more assiduous. After all, they don’t want to get hoodwinked like a lot of Trotskyists did with a spurious “left opposition” group in Ukraine some years back.

Fundamentally, the anarchists and the State Capitalists–despite their furious disagreements over the “Russian questions”–share an idealistic conception of how revolutions are made. I don’t mean “idealistic” in the sense that young people are dubbed idealistic when they join the boy scouts or girl scouts (although there is an element of that.) Instead I am referring to the belief that one must have “correct” ideas in one’s head and then go out to bend historical forces according to those ideas. This involves perfecting what Marxists call a “program”, which is really much more of a set of dogmatic ideas based on past history than anything else. If one lacks such a “program”, then one is doomed to failure.

I would argue that the revolutionary program can never be worked out in advance, but must arise out of the class struggle through the constant interaction between thought and action, which is constantly bumping into the harsh but necessary classroom experience afforded by the class struggle. To believe that a revolutionary party (or nucleus of a party) can exist outside and prior to the unfolding revolutionary movement is an idealist error. It is analogous in some way to the statement once made by an individual that he had plans to become a capitalist as soon as he put together $100 million. In reality, the act of putting together that much money and becoming a capitalist are identical. By the same token, one can only develop a revolutionary party with a correct revolutionary program in the act of making a revolution. Whatever flaws they have exhibited along the way, the independent Marxist cadres of the Venezuelan revolution who have emerged out of the experience of groups like Causa R and the MAS have much more in common with what Lenin was trying to do than all of the self-proclaimed Trotskyist vanguards.

I want to conclude with some thoughts on the question of “21st century socialism”. Although I agree that the USSR was a nightmare, it would be a mistake to think that a postcapitalist society (I hesitate to use the word “socialism” for the same reason that Trotsky did when he described the USSR as being in transition between capitalism and socialism) can be launched on foundations other than those of October 1917. Although I am a solid supporter of the Venezuelan government, I believe that qualitative changes are necessary before genuine socialism can come into existence. In some ways, the sectarian left is not wrong to point out that the state is hobbled by the “corruption” and “bureaucracy” that Harman referred to. Sooner or later, that sort of thing will have to be rooted out like a cancerous growth.

For obvious reasons, the Venezuelan revolutionary movement has to proceed cautiously. Unlike Cuba in 1959, Venezuela cannot rely on a powerful socialist government for trade and subsidies. It has to play with the cards that it has been dealt by history. Considering the success of Hugo Chavez and his comrades to this point, we might say that he is one of the sharpest card players in the history of our movement whose shoulder we should look over, rather than kibbitzing that he is some kind of Kerensky to be thrown into the ashcan of history.

April 17, 2007

Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan Revolution, part 2

Filed under: socialism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 3:27 pm

Michael Lebowitz is economics professor emeritus of Simon Fraser University in Canada, who has been living in Venezuela for a number of years. This gives him some unique insights into the revolutionary process there.

Michael Lebowitz

Those insights are shaped by his general approach to the problem of how to create alternatives to capitalism as explored in his “Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class,” a Palgrave-Macmillan book that was awarded the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize in 2004. Although I have not read this book, it supposedly explains, in the words of reviewer Jim Devine, that “one-dimensional and automatic Marxisms were able to develop a textual basis because Marx never wrote his planned book on wage labor.” Although I find this approach intriguing, my own analysis of the problem of how “one-dimensionality” in Marxism tends to focus on institutional inertia associated with the emergence of a bureaucracy in the USSR, as well as the left-sectarian dialectical opposites embodied in the Trotskyist and Maoist movements. If there is one good thing that has emerged out of the collapse of the USSR, it is possibility that Marxist scholars and activists will no longer be shackled by the past.

For Lebowitz, the importance of Venezuela is that it opens up the possibility of working people beginning to take control of their lives in a way that past socialisms could not. Freed from the bad anti-democratic and economistic habits of the past, the movement can start afresh. In an interview with the Weekly Worker, he explains:

This is exactly the sort of thing that is happening here in Venezuela at the moment. There are many contradictions and problems, but the thing that is exciting is that the people are asserting themselves from below, starting to articulate their own independent demands, developing a new sense of themselves. They are doing that in the context of a constitution that stresses the development of human potential and that this is only possible through participation and protagonistic activity.

So the constitution which puts this forward as a goal functions in a dialectic with masses of people who are trying to follow through the logic of their own struggles. Chávez encourages these movements but, as they develop, the pressures on Chávez from below grow, too.

I see some of the things that are happening in Venezuela as exciting because I think the stress on the development of human capacity — and on this only being possible from below, through mass struggle — is absolutely critical. There are many contradictions, but this is key.

Coming on the heels of “Beyond Capital,” Lebowitz’s “Build it Now: Socialism for the 21st Century” is a groundbreaking attempt to provide a theoretical and political context for what is taking place in Venezuela today, with the final two chapters getting into the complexities of economic development in a revolutionary society.

The phrase “build it now” refers to the act of launching elements of the new society in the existing one. If this seems controversial at first blush, it might not on further reflection upon classical Marxist theory. In terms of “transition,” we should keep in mind that this is exactly the way that capitalism began to emerge within the nooks and crannies of feudal society. We tend not to think of socialism in the same manner since the emergence of socialist institutions has tended to coincide with the seizure of power in Soviet-type revolutions. On the day before the revolution, capitalism exists everywhere. Shortly after its triumph, the state issues a set of laws that convert property to public ownership and the armed people defend those measures.

The other key term is “the 21st century.” Lebowitz is in full agreement with Hugo Chavez that the socialism of this century will not look like that of the past. He writes, “We need to understand that socialism of the twenty-first century cannot be a statist society where decisions are top-down and where all initiative is the property of state officeholders or cadres of self-reproducing vanguards.” He adds, “We need to recognize, too, that socialism is not the worship of technology–a disease that has plagued Marxism and which in the Soviet Union took the form of immense factories, mines, and collective farms to capture presumed economies of scale.” (This section of Lebowitz’s book can be read online at: http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/articles.php?artno=1511.)

Concretely, this would include the creation of cooperatives and various forms of worker self-management, as stipulated in Article 70 of the new Venezuelan constitution:

launching “self-management, co-management, cooperatives in all forms” as examples of “forms of association guided by the values of mutual cooperation and solidarity,” and in the obligations noted in Article 135 which “by virtue of solidarity, social responsibility and humanitarian assistance, are incumbent upon private individuals according to their abilities” — the elements of a Socialism of the 21st Century are there in ideal form.

With all due respect to Michael Lebowitz and Hugo Chavez, this emphasis on cooperatives–as opposed to the immense state-owned and bureaucratically directed factories and farms of the Soviet Union–is not exactly contrary to what Lenin was calling for at the very end of his life in the article “On Cooperation“:

It seems to me that not enough attention is being paid to the cooperative movement in our country. Not everyone understands that now, since the time of the October revolution and quite apart from NEP (on the contrary, in this connection we must say—because of NEP), our cooperative movement has become one of great significance. There is a lot of fantasy in the dreams of the old cooperators. Often they are ridiculously fantastic. But why are they fantastic? Because people do not understand the fundamental, the rock-bottom significance of the working-class political struggle for the overthrow of the rule of the exploiters. We have overthrown the rule of the exploiters, and much that was fantastic, even romantic, even banal in the dreams of the old cooperators is now becoming unvarnished reality.

Indeed, since political power is in the hands of the working-class, since this political power owns all the means of production, the only task, indeed, that remains for us is to organize the population in cooperative societies. With most of the population organizing cooperatives, the socialism which in the past was legitimately treated with ridicule, scorn and contempt by those who were rightly convinced that it was necessary to wage the class struggle, the struggle for political power, etc., will achieve its aim automatically. But not all comrades realize how vastly, how infinitely important it is now to organize the population of Russia in cooperative societies.

Of course, we know how things turned out in the USSR. All of Lenin’s emphasis on a slower pace and greater grass roots initiative was thrown out the window and the country was lashed into a forced march toward industrialization by Stalin. Ironically, a return to the early 1920s is being marked to some extent by aspects of the Cuban economy today, with its willingness to allow agricultural coops to flourish as well as exploiting foreign investment without sacrificing the interests of working people.

To Michael Lebowitz’s credit, he acknowledges that self-management or workers control in and of itself is no panacea. In chapter six (“Seven Difficult Questions), he deals at length with the experience of Tito’s Yugoslavia, which at the time was considered the first alternative to Stalinist economic practice. Despite the promise of worker cooperation and self-management–especially the possibility of resolving the contradiction between “thinking” and “doing”–the reality often did not match up to the expectation.

The most fundamental problem reported by Michael is the failure of workers to override decisions made by management. After a long and tiresome day’s work, they lacked the energy to educate themselves about factory problems beyond the purview of their own job. When I read this, the first thing I thought of was Doug Henwood’s shrewd observation about Michael Albert’s PARECON on the LBO Mailing List: “People want to delegate decisions and get on with their lives, not engage in endless dickering and bickering. You could never sell radical economic change if it meant more work.”

An even more serious problem revolved around the need to sustain enterprises for whose products there was a declining demand. Under capitalism, we know what happens but what about socialist Yugoslavia? As it turns out, they continued to produce goods for which there were no buyers. The workers did not suffer, but the economy did.

Additionally, there was a problem with workers solidarity not extending beyond the plant gate. The workers in one plant might resent those in another if their goods and prices were seen as out of whack with expectations. Viewing Yugoslavia, Che Guevara worried that competition could “introduce factors that distort what the socialist spirit should presumably be.” Furthermore, in an effort to make their own plant competitive, workers would often introduce labor-saving technology. When this phenomenon became generalized, it led to a contraction in the availability of jobs as anybody introduced to the ABC’s of Marxism might have warned. It seemed that Tito was resolving one set of contradictions associated with the USSR but introducing an entirely new set.

After recounting these sorts of problems, Michael poses the questions: In a system of self-management, who looks after the interests of the working class as a whole; and how can solidarity between worker-managed enterprises and society as a whole be incorporated directly into those societies?

With the negative example of Yugoslavia having been established, he turns to economic development in Venezuela today in his final chapter, titled “The Revolution of Radical Needs: Behind the Bolivarian Choice of a Socialist Path.” It is the most closely examined study of the Venezuelan economy that I have seen to date and justifies purchase of the MR book on this basis alone.

It zeroes in on the transformation of the oil industry in Venezuela, which is among the most powerful anti-capitalist acts of the past 25 years–taking place most notably in a society in which capitalist property relations still dominate.

Initially, economic policy in Venezuela did not consider alternatives to capitalism. It was in line with the perspectives found in Osvaldo Sunkel’s “Development from Within: Toward a Neostructuralist Approach for Latin America.” Sunkel is a Chilean economist who favored nationalist (or endogenous) development of the sort that UN economist Raul Prebisch advocated in the 1950s and which Juan Peron (despite Prebisch’s opposition) acted on. Endogenous is another word for inward, which was the hallmark of import substitution and other measures associated with Prebisch. Basically, the inspiration was less Cuba than Japan and the Asian Tigers. Chavez read Sunkel’s book while in prison and called for it to be read in schools, ministries and state-owned enterprises.

Of course, as might be obvious from the past 10 years in Venezuelan history, events are driven less by holy texts than they are by the exigencies of the class struggle.

Whatever insights that were gained from the writings of a pro-capitalist/nationalist economist like Osvaldo Sunkel, they had to give way to the deeper anti-capitalist logic of the needs of a hungry and largely underemployed population. As soon as Chavez proposed a series of measures to fund cooperatives and gain greater revenues from the sale of oil, the local capitalists and their allies on Wall Street and in Washington sensed that they were dealing with a logic that would lead to deeper structural reforms. This was no Lula that they were dealing with. It was obvious from the beginning that Chavez would not sacrifice the needs of the Venezuelan people to the needs of global capital.

After the April 2002 coup was crushed, Chavez had the political capital he needed to transform PDVSA, the state-owned oil company known in the U.S. as Citgo that has made cheap heating oil available to poor people. Before the coup, the only people benefiting were the fat cat Accion Democratica functionaries at the top of the company. 18,000 old guard PDVSA managers and technicians were fired and Chavez announced, “We resume the offensive.”

This ushered in a period that Michael refers to as “radical endogamous development.” It was a series of reforms known as “Vuelvan Caras” (Turn Your Faces) that recognized that Venezuela was no South Korea. It had a vast informal sector and was saddled by debt. This meant that it was necessary to foster the development of cooperatives and associations that could make the most immediate impact on poor people’s lives. These were the economic analogue of the Cuban-staffed clinics that appeared in the country around the same time. When Chavez first became President in 1998, there were only 762 cooperatives in the country. At the time that Michael Lebowitz was writing his book, there were 84,000.

In his closing speech to the 2005 World Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2005, Chavez said, “We have to reinvent socialism. It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union, but it will have to emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition.” Even sounding like a convert to Cliff-thought, he added, “But we cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion of the Soviet Union. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything.”

In my final post on Venezuela, I want to take a closer look at the question of what the Soviet Union represented and whether there can be a socialism that has absolutely no connections to that experience, as well as to make some projections about the ultimate course of the revolution in Venezuela.

April 15, 2007

Hugo Chavez and the Venezuelan Revolution, part one

Filed under: socialism,Venezuela — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

Some observers see in Dr. Castro a tropical Kerensky, a democratically-minded but naïve man who is unwittingly preparing the path for a Communist take-over. But this judgment appears to be greatly exaggerated.

Tad Szulc, N.Y. Times, July 26, 1959

Doug Henwood: So this is what he [Hugo Chavez] means by 21st century socialism?

Tariq Ali: Yeah, that’s what he means. It is left social democratic reforms. And he has said that to me a number of times that we are not living in an epoch of proletarian revolution. It is just crazy to think you can just jump over everything and do that.

Full interview

What was also new was that Chavez was reading deeply about socialism. Indeed, in that same Paraguay speech, he revealed (as he had on Alo Presidente a week earlier) that he was studying Istvan Meszaros’s Beyond Capital (“a book of thousand and hundred and so many pages”) and that Fidel Castro was reading a copy he had sent him. The immediate result would soon be clear. On the Alo Presidente program of July 17, Chavez read his nocturnal notes on the book from May 18, two months earlier. There, under the heading “Transition to socialism, heading for socialism,” appeared a phrase that triggered Chavez’s imagination: “The Point of Archimedes, this expression taken from the wonderful book of Istvan Meszaros, a communal system of production and of consumption—that is what we are creating, we know we are building this. We have to create a communal system of production and consumption, a new system…. Let us remember that Archimedes said: ‘You give me an intervention point and I will move the world.’ This is the point from which to move the world today.”

Michael Lebowitz, “Build it Now: Socialism for the 21st Century”, pp. 107-108

* * * * *

This begins three concluding entries in a series of articles titled “Does Socialism have a future?” (View past articles in this series.) It is more than appropriate to focus on contemporary Venezuela since it represents the most open bid for a socialist transformation since Sandinista Nicaragua. As has been the case since Karl Marx wrote about the Paris Commune, it is always easier to understand the problems of socialist revolution by looking at a living struggle rather than wrangling over abstractions.

I had originally intended to base the article on a review of Michael Lebowitz’s “Build it Now,” but decided to include Richard Gott’s “In the Shadow of the Liberator: Hugo Chavez and the Transformation of Venezuela,” since the two books complement each other, with Gott’s emphasis on the historical background and Lebowitz’s on broader theoretical questions. After discussing both works, I want to offer my own thoughts on how to theorize the current situation in Venezuela, particularly from the standpoint of whether the process is “from above or below,” to use the terminology associated with the state capitalist movement. Not to give too much away, it would seem that both Cuba and Venezuela today compel one to think more dialectically about terms such as “above” and “below.”

Richard Gott

Gott’s “In the Shadow of the Liberator” is an eye-opening account of Hugo Chavez’s long-standing ties to the revolutionary movement in Venezuela. As opposed to the portrait of him in the bourgeois press as some kind of bumbling populist, Gott describes someone who has been thinking deeply about the problems of social and economic transformation since an early age and who has sought to build a movement capable of making that transformation possible. Rather than a man on horseback, Hugo Chavez has much more in common with Lenin or any of the other great revolutionaries of the 20th century. It is obviously disorienting to some that his political career has been intertwined with his military career, a seeming violation of the Marxist understanding of the state as bodies of armed men. Anybody who reads Gott’s book will realize that there is no contradiction between the proletarian army and the regular army in Venezuela, or at least its class-conscious fraction.

To start with, it is essential to see Hugo Chavez’s continuity with the Venezuelan revolutionary movement through his appointments to high government positions. His minister of energy and mines is Ali Rodríguez Araque, a veteran of guerrilla struggles in the state of Falcón in the 1960s and a former leader of La Causa Radical (popularly known as Causa R), a leftist party prominent in the 1990s that was absorbed by the broader revolutionary movement that helped elect Chavez. Lino Martínez, the minister of labor, was also a former guerrilla and 6 other ex-guerrillas are currently functioning as pro-Chavez parliamentarians.

Chavez relies heavily on the advice of José Vicente Rangel and Luís Miquilena, two veterans of the Venezuela left. Rangel, his former foreign minister, was a leftist presidential candidate for the Movimiento al Socialismo on 3 occasions, without actually being a member. This party–a split from the CP in Venezuela–and Causa R were the two most important anti-capitalist formations in the years leading up to Chavez’s presidency. Indeed, it is difficult to think of Chavez being successful without their prior existence, just as it would be difficult to consider Fidel Castro coming to power without the Ortodoxo Party paving the way.

Miquilena, the president of the National Assembly when Gott’s book was published, was a leader of the bus drivers’ union in Caracas in the 1940s, and a co-founder of an anti-Stalinist Marxist party known as the Partido Comunista Venezolano Unitario in 1946. He was Chavez’s first minister of the interior and still “retains a tough Leninist streak” as Gott puts it.

In mid-1989, he helped to organize the Patriotic Front, a formation that was designed to challenge the neoliberal policies of the government that had led to an uprising in February known as the Caracazo. A rise in gasoline prices and bus fare had sparked a revolt of the poor who were based in the shanty towns ringing Caracas. Fundamentally, this uprising set into motion the chain of events that would lead to Chavez’s presidency.

Like the government that it would eventually serve as midwife to, the Patriotic Front was a joint civilian-military organization. Miquilena and his civilian comrades, including ex-guerrilla Douglas Bravo, were joined by Lieutenant William Izarra, who had just retired from the air force. It should be noted that Izarra had little in common with the rightwing Christian fundamentalists that the American Air Force academy in Colorado Springs churns out with alarming regularity. Gott describes Izarra as a “revolutionary officer with Trotskyist leanings who had studied at Harvard.”

Even the civilian members of the Patriotic Front had relationships to the military. Pedro Duno, a philosophy professor at the Universidad Central in Caracas, came from a military family and kept up his contacts with the military over the years. Given this background, it should come as no surprise that Hugo Chavez would eventually emerge as a leader of the movement that brought the Patriotic Front’s aspirations to fruition. As Duno put it:

Venezuela is a country in an advanced state of collapse, whose characteristics of corruption and pillage, incompetence, irresponsibility and cynicism, define the gloomy panorama of the present. In this bleak situation it is being suggested that the armed forces should intervene. Since it is impossible to use the force of reasonable argument, or of law, or of rights, or of the constitution, because the state and the government provide no guarantees, then it will be justifiable to use the reasonable argument of force, the ultima ratio.

The Patriotic Front would have certainly settled for somebody like General Isías Medina Angarita who ruled Venezuela during WWII. With urgent requirements for oil in the fight against the Axis powers, Medina was able to extract concessions from Washington with the support of the Communists. Oil workers, however, often found themselves opposed to the government since their right to strike was compromised by the need to sustain wartime production, just as was the case in the U.S. Acción Democrática, which would eventually overthrow Medina, took up the cause of the oil workers while supporting bourgeois development. Their alliance lasted until Chavez took office and explains their initial resistance to the government. Eventually, the oil workers would understand their true class interests and become a key component of the Bolivarian revolution.

But in one of the ironies of history, the military leader who would eventually rule Venezuela had much more in common with civilian leftists than the typical Venezuelan progressive officer. Although he was a career military man, Hugo Chavez’s ideas came out of the revolutionary left rather than any military academy.

Gott paints a portrait of a serious, highly intelligent revolutionary politician, one that is a bit different but not necessarily at odds with Chavez’s folksy, populist image. From the very beginning, Chavez was consumed with the need to link up with ordinary working people and those in the informal economy. He developed a speaking style that was very much in tune with their popular culture and the grass roots Church, although as should be obvious from the reference to Mezsaros that serves as an epigraph to this article, he was just as capable of engaging with Marxist intellectuals.

In 1974, at the age of 20, Hugo Chavez traveled to Peru as part of a military delegation where he witnessed the leftwing military government of General Juan Velasco Alvarado in power. Alvarado was supported by leftist parties and embarked on wide-ranging reforms. This inspired him to start a clandestine revolutionary group three years later called the Liberation Army of the Venezuelan People. This would serve as the nucleus of a progressive movement in the military that would follow Velasco’s example. But for most of the 1970s, Chavez and like-minded officers were mostly involved in discussions rather than action.

They continued reaching out to other officers in the 1980s, but found themselves more and more coming under the influence of the civilian left that they had encountered on the campus of the Universidad Central in Caracas, where they took courses in social science assigned by the military and found themselves rubbing shoulders with former guerrillas.

After an unsuccessful coup attempt in February 1992, Chavez was sent to Yare Prison. Just like Fidel Castro’s imprisonment after the unsuccessful raid on Moncada, Chavez began making new plans for the seizure of power from behind bars. For the next two years, the political mood began to change radically in Venezuela. The ruling party began to fall apart at the seams, while leftist coalitions like Convergencia (which included Movimiento al Socialismo) and parties like Causa R began to grow rapidly. From within his prison cell, Chavez began to reach out to them. He did draw the line, however, when it came to ultraleftists like Bandera Roja that claimed to be the inheritor of the mantle of the guerrillas of the earlier period. Chavez never had much time for such ultraleftists:

Groups like them appear to have given themselves the holy mission of proclaiming themselves to be the only revolutionaries on the planet, or at any rate in this territory. And those who don’t follow their dogmas are not considered genuine revolutionaries. I have never talked for more than five minutes with a single leader of Bandera Roja.

Causa R was established in the early 1970s by Alfredo Maneiro, a guerrilla fighter in the CP from the previous decade. It transformed itself into Patria Para Todos (PPT) in 1997, a key element of Chavez’s ruling coalition. The PPT has furnished Chavez and his ministers with many of their key ideas. Maneiro had new ideas about how revolutionaries should organize themselves. Historian Margarita López Maya describes it as follows:

He said it was necessary both to create a political framework for the extraordinary and spontaneous mobilizing capacity of the masses, and to participate in the infinite and varied forms of a popular movement; but this had to be done in the firm belief that the masses themselves would decide on their own political direction. Instead of starting with a given political structure, it was important to trust in the capacity of the popular movement to take on the task of producing a new leadership from within its ranks.

Not only does this sound like “socialism from below,” it also sounds very much like how the revolution is unfolding in Venezuela. The paradox, of course, lies in the fact that such a political and organizational paradigm is associated with a movement launched by a career military officer. It is understandable that those who are uncomfortable with paradoxes will want to retreat into cozy little schemas that put them at the center of the political universe.

I first became aware of Causa R in an article written by Peter Camejo titled “Return to Materialism,” in which he urges the Australian Democratic Socialist Party to reconsider the party-building model commonly referred to as “Leninist”. Peter suggests that the Venezuelan approach might make more sense:

The preamble [of the DSP's program] also makes a prediction of total demise unless the kind of structure referred to as Leninist (incorrectly) is adopted and followed. The preamble says the DSP would degenerate and no longer be a coherent organization.

We should give this some careful thought. Causa R in Venezuela does not follow any of this. They act precisely in the manner criticized by the DSP. Yet Causa R has not degenerated or collapsed. Instead they have gone from 20 members to tens of thousands directly in the leadership of major industrial unions, have the support of millions, precisely among the poorest Venezuelans and its industrial working class.

Does that mean Causa R, and what it advocates is right for Australia, or even Venezuela? That is not necessarily the case. Will they be able to go beyond their present gains with the organizational methods they have used up to now? That’s a difficult questions to answer, but my point is we should drop this arrogance about the “proven Leninist principles of organization”, meaning the structure that Cannon developed in the United States.

The only thing missing from Peter’s article, of course, is the final outcome of Causa R, which was integration into the electoral formation that succeeded in electing Hugo Chavez. Chavez’s election represents a significant challenge not only to dogmatic assumptions about “Leninism” but also what it means to be a socialist in the 21st century. We can thank Michael Lebowitz for grappling with this question in “Build It Now,” the subject of my next post.

April 14, 2007

Counterpunch article on est

Filed under: health and fitness — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

Just before I left for Kansas City to go into industry, I worked for a consulting company in NYC called Automated Concepts, Inc. It was run by a handsome, well-built, perpetually smiling fellow by the name of Fred Harris who everybody knew was a graduate of est, a self-improvement cult that was almost as powerful as Scientology at the time. I got to know Fred fairly well through a series of dinners I had with him when I was giving computer classes to his headhunters. I can’t remember him ever coming up with a single intelligent remark although he was certainly a charismatic figure and capable, I’m sure, of selling refrigerators to the Innuit. I imagine that his perpetually elevated mood was something he got out of the est seminars. I myself preferred cocaine at the time.

Years later after I was working at Goldman-Sachs and had money to throw around, I joined a health club not far from my building and even hired a trainer. This guy, an aspiring actor with bulging calf muscles and a lantern jaw, invited me once to go to a meeting to hear some really exciting ideas. Since liberal-minded fellow workers were always willing to come to a Militant Labor Forum with me when I was in the Trotskyist movement, I thought that I’d accept his invitation in the same spirit. The meeting was sponsored by something called Landmark, an innocent enough sounding name. I thought I would hear something about how to succeed in business or find the love of my life, but it turned out to be a pitch to sign up for seminars in what amounted to est’s latest incarnation. Werner Erhard, the founder of est, had sold his business to Landmark Education that was carrying out the same approach. One meeting was enough for me. After spending 11 years in one cult, I was not about to get involved with another.

Check Counterpunch for the eye-opening article on est.

Werner Erhard website

Wiki article on Erhard

Report on Landmark Education

April 13, 2007

James’ Journey to Jerusalem

Filed under: Film,zionism — louisproyect @ 6:29 pm

Made in 2003 and now available on home video, the Israeli film “James’ Journey to Jerusalem” is a scathing portrait of class relations in Zionist society in general and the plight of undocumented workers in particular. The latter group flocked to Israel after the Intafada cut off the supply of Palestinian workers. But James, a devout Zulu Christian, is not one of them. He has instead been sent by his village on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Rather than finding a holy city, he encounters something much more like Sodom and Gomorrah. Director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz sees Israelis as grubby, Mammon-worshipping exploiters who debase themselves and anybody who comes into contact with them, including the saintly James.

After getting off the plane in Tel Aviv, James (Siyabonga Melongisi Shibe) tells an immigration officer that he is there on a spiritual quest, which she dismisses as a ploy to illegally enter the country and then has him arrested. No matter how much he insists to the jailers that there has been a terrible mistake, they assume that he is just another “illegal.” Salvation arrives in the form of Shimi Shabati (Salim Dau, actually an Arab actor), who pays his bail. As it turns out, Shimi is a labor subcontractor who stops by the jail whenever he needs a fresh body.

James finds himself in the company of about a dozen other workers who, unlike him, did come to Israel to find a job. Shimi sends them out as day laborers and keeps them in conditions not much better than the jail. His foreman won’t allow them to watch television unless they come up with five shekels.

After protesting futilely to Shimi, James agrees to work for him until he can pay back the bail money that freed him from one jail and landed him in another. So set is he on seeing Jerusalem that he works harder and longer than any of his comrades. Time is of the essence. The sooner he pays off Shimi, the sooner his salvation.

He only takes a break from work to attend services at a local Church that has an African immigrant congregation. One of the great pleasures of this film is listening to the choir singing authentic Zulu hymns in the style that Ladysmith Black Mambazo popularized. In no time at all, James has become the favorite of the pastor who prevails upon him to make donations to the Church all out of proportion to his income. Even if these donations will delay his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the pastor assures him that they will get him into Heaven. Between the naked exploitation of Shimi the labor subcontractor and the pious exploitation of the pastor, there is not much to choose between.

After a few weeks, James is taken to a Tel Aviv shopping mall by Skomboze (Hugh Masebenza), a fellow Zulu who lives for the moment. Every penny he gets is spent on clothing or booze. Despite his piety, James also finds himself seduced by the consumer goods at the mall and buys new running shoes and a cell phone without hesitation.

In his rounds as a cleaning man to Shimi’s clients, including his elderly father, James discovers that the Israelis are always on the lookout for an honest, hardworking “Blackie.” With his connections at the Church and his trusty cell phone, James begins to run his own subcontracting business on the side. At one service, the pastor tells the congregation that he is there to attend to their spiritual needs, while James can be counted on to address their material needs.

The longer that James stays in the labor contracting business, the more he finds himself adapting to Israeli society. This means first of all not allowing anybody to take advantage of him. In Hebrew, this means being a “fayir”, or patsy. Evidently, the Israelis find undocumented workers to be the quintessential “fayir” after the Palestinians. This altogether Balzacian film leaves one with the impression that Israeli society is made up either of “fayirs” or those who screw them. This is not a holy land by any stretch of the imagination.

The subtext of the film is that the Zionist dream is dead. James personifies the original spirit of those Jews who came to the holy land in search of religious salvation and personal identity, but the dead end of such an approach in the long run. Israeli society drags down everybody who enters it, including the Jews who were its original sanctifiers. Coming as it does from an Israeli director, this bleak vision begins to suggest why young Israeli soldiers were reluctant to die in the recent war in Lebanon. They simply did not want to be “fayirs”.

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